WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) - As Congress prepares for the holiday break, lawmakers like Rep. Tim Murphy, R- Pa., are hoping to end the year with bipartisan legislation that in part, would help people suffering with mental illness.
The 21st Century Cures Act, which also tackles funding for biomedical research, would help bolster access to treatment, placing an emphasis on organizing the federal government's role, which Rep. Murphy says has been handled poorly.
Murphy said it simply starts with using "evidence-based practices."
"No more of – quite frankly – goofy feel-good programs like how to make a fruit smoothie if you’re stressed, or how to make a mask, or interpretive dancing or deal with your hidden anger or animal. Those aren’t good approaches. It doesn’t deal with the severe mental illness" that effects millions of Americans with mental health problems like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House last week, and was passed by the Senate Wednesday afternoon.
"It’s been sad at times, because of the many stories heard from thousands and thousands of families across America who have lost someone, or someone in prison, or who is homeless, jammed up in the court system or struggling at home," Rep. Murphy explained.
So what exactly would change for people struggling with mental health?
Simply put, the congressman said it would create a new office specifically addressing mental health and substance abuse.
The proposed Assistant Secretary of Mental Health and Substance Abuse would see their primary objective as getting federal agencies structured and organized to better serve people.
From there, states would better communicate within departments to ensure best practices and get proper spending of funds in order.
"If you don’t treat mental illness in a community, you end up dealing with it in prison, and homeless programs. People lying on a gurney in an emergency room waiting for a bed, or sadly, sent to the county morgue when they die," he said.
To that effect, the bill aims to expand the number of beds Medicaid pays for in hospitals, "right now it's limited to hospitals with less than 16 beds - an absurd concept."
"We don’t do that with heart disease or cancer. And with mental illness affecting far more people in terms of annual deaths per year… it is essential we do that."
Funds would also funnel into more training for mental healthcare professionals. Murphy explained that currently half of the counties in the U.S. don't even have a psychologist or psychiatrist to serve their communities.
It would also jump-start access to mental health by having pediatricians and physicians talk to patients about it.
"The idea is more places for treatment, more people for treatment, more accountability for treatment, more effective focus by the federal government."
OVERCOMING THE STIGMA OF GETTING TREATMENT FOR MENTAL HEALTH
There's no escaping the inherent stigma behind addressing mental health.
According to the journal of World Psychiatry, patients not only struggle with symptoms and disabilities resulting from their mental health, they're also challenged by stereotypes based on misconceptions about it.
"As a result of both, people with mental illness are robbed of the opportunities that define a quality life: good jobs, safe housing, satisfactory health care, and affiliation with a diverse group of people," the journal notes.
"We don’t want to deal with it because unfortunately for many people, their contact, once they start developing symptoms of mental illness, their first treatment doesn’t occur for 60 to 80 weeks. And sometimes their first contact is being arrested by police. So it’s no wonder there’s some stigma with that," Rep. Murphy continued.
He noted though, the call to action of identifying and treating illnesses can help change lives, and enrich communities.
"The key feature is, the point when you can easily make a call and get treatment. It’s no rougher than getting a broken arm fixed or something. Still have a way to go on there, but we’re headed down a great road in terms of being able to overcome that hurdle."
"But denial is not a treatment. Ignoring something is not a treatment. So working there and having people basically come out and tell their story is all part of getting that stigma gone."
ON A MISSION FOR CHANGE
It comes as no surprise the issue is one close to Rep. Murphy.
He's a trained psychologist who's practiced for 40 years, and is currently the only practicing mental health professional in the elected federal government.
As a Navy psychologist, he spent time specifically helping service members dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
His efforts also extend to helping the victims from the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. Twenty children between the ages of 6 and 7 years-old died alongside six adult staffers.
"More and more families speaking up, it just motivates you to say ‘I’ve got to do something.’ And it’s that day – while I hadn’t intended to do this in Congress, there’s that moment you look in the mirror and say ‘if not me, who? And if not now, when?’ and you have to start taking that action, make those changes," Murphy said.
That action, he admits, can sometimes be tied down by partisan politics, which in part, is sometimes caused by the passive-aggressive nature of the job.
"It’s sometimes the toxic part of not moving legislation in Congress. It’s the aggressive act where you don’t do things."
His new book, Overcoming Passive-aggression, serves as a guide to curb hidden anger from making a negative impact on relationships.
"We’ve gotten so sloppy in our ability to interact because mostly we do it through texting or posting messages, etc. – we’ve lost the ability to just look someone in the eye and communicate with them, as tough as that may be."